26th Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2013
Sacrament of Baptism
This week I came across a great image that sums up this text and whatever I hope to offer in this sermon. It’s a photograph of someone standing in a street holding a sign made from a torn piece of cardboard. It has a message on it, painted in black, which reads: THE BEGINNING IS NEAR.
I love it. The perfect counter-message to the doom-and-gloom, “the end of the world is nigh” message that a certain segment of the Christian community love to harp on about. Yes, the end will come. Scripture is clear, Jesus was clear, however, “No one knows the hour or the day.” No one. Not even Jesus (Mark 13:34). So be wary of people who say, “We know.” They don’t.
When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers College I took a class on religion in colonial America. It was taught by the historian Philip Greven, an expert on the child-rearing patterns of New England Protestants in the eighteenth century. In his book The Protestant Temperament, Greven identified this fascinating correlation: children born into evangelical households, oftentimes raised in physically abusive situations, later grew up to hate the world, indeed looked with zeal for an end to the world, eager for God to unleash violent judgments upon the rest of the world. Projecting, mirroring, no doubt, the way their parents treated them. Greven found that children raised in theologically moderate or liberal households, generally treated with respect and compassion and nurture, in time grew up to love the world, to feel at home in the world, free to experience love and beauty in the world and work for societal reform and justice. Greven has also argued, in a different work, that similar child-rearing patterns are still informing the contemporary religious landscape.
We can waste time and energy worrying about when the world is going to end, searching the newspaper for clues. But I don’t think that’s being faithful. True, the apostle Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as a sign that the world would soon end, “the first fruits of them that sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20, 20-25). But, Paul got it wrong.
Instead of worrying about when, maybe we should turn the question on its head and ask, why? In other words, why are we still here? Maybe because God isn’t finished with us yet. Maybe because God hasn’t given up on creation. Maybe because God is still creating. Maybe because God is at work creating something for us, in us, through us for the world. There’s an entire library of books in the Bible that give witness to this truth. Apart from Jesus, there’s probably no stronger witness to this vision than the author of Isaiah 65—let’s just call him Isaiah.
The Thursday Morning Bible Study has been working its way through Isaiah (second and third Isaiah, chapters 40-66). What’s clear already, and we’re only up to chapter 45, is a theme that continues all the way through to chapter 66. It’s a theme particularly strong in Isaiah 65. It’s this: God creates. To which, you’re probably thinking: “Uh, duh! Of course we know God as creator. Every church school child knows that.”
God is first revealed as creator, who works for six days and rests on the seventh. It’s not that simple, however. In the opening of Genesis, God is directly linked with the ancient, profound Hebrew word bara’, a verb meaning to create, to shape, to form, to fashion. God is always the subject of the verb. It’s found in 45 verses in the Hebrew Scriptures; eight in Genesis, six in the psalms, but seventeen in Isaiah, with sixteen out of the seventeen in second and third Isaiah, including Isaiah 65:17.
Isaiah 65 was written for Israel after its return from exile in Babylon. The people were allowed to return home to Judah due to the gracious decree of the victorious Persian King Cyrus the Great (d.530 BC), who defeated the Babylonian Empire. And, significantly, he’s a gentile king who, remarkably (!), God designates as God’s “anointed” or “messiah” or “christ” (Isaiah 45:1). It’s all the same word. Cyrus is chosen as the means through which the people Israel will be liberated and restored. In choosing to work through Cyrus, God was doing a startling, scandalous, shocking new thing. Using a gentile for the liberation of Israel.
But, you see, that’s who Yahweh is, that’s what God does; always has, always will. God is the one who creates and is creating, doing a new thing. The one who formed new life out of the chaos and void at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1-2) is the one who continues to form new life out of the chaos and void of human pain and suffering. To a people on the way home, God speaks through Isaiah and says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy” (Is. 65:17-18). The beginning is near!
When? Now and in the future. It’s both coming, so be ready; and it’s also already here, so wake up and see it! The verb tense is confusing, though: God will create. God creates. God is creating. God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. The time is ambiguous, a word with its roots in the Latin ambo, meaning “both.” “God’s new creation is happening both now and in the future.” The point is something is happening. God is happening in us, in the world, all around us, in unlikely places and people. God hasn’t stopped creating but is tirelessly at work to realize something in us, for us, through us for the sake of the world that God passionately loves. This isn’t the language of ending or destruction, is it? It’s the language of new beginnings, of construction, or reconstruction, of recreation, of new creation.
You know, our sister-denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), has a wonderful ad campaign. You might have seen their commercials on television with the tag line: “God is still speaking.” I wish the Presbyterian Church would come up with something similar—or maybe we should just steal theirs (or borrow it). Nevertheless, we should use it—a lot. God is still speaking because God is still creating, still has something to say to us, still has something to be realized through you and me.
We get a glimpse of it here in the focus on Jerusalem—Jerusalem will be God’s joy and its people a delight. Jerusalem is a symbol for what God intends for all God’s children. For surely, what Isaiah offers here can’t possibly apply only to Jerusalem. What about Bethlehem or Jericho or Nazareth? Jerusalem is Yahweh’s city, Yahweh’s shalom, peace; it’s both this particular place and every place; it’s particular and universal, symbolizing God’s life with all God’s people.
What does that life look like? What is God’s intent, the goal of God’s shaping and forming? It’s a place, a community, a world where all God’s children will be able to live and thrive and create. In such a place we won’t find weeping in the streets or hear the cries of distress. Why? People will be cared for. In such a place, infants will be born and be given a future, born to bless the world. As we know, infant mortality is always an index of the quality of human life. “In a disordered, uncaring community too many babies die too soon from neglect, from malnutrition, from violence, from poor health and bad medical service.” What Isaiah envisions here is a societal infrastructure that sustains and cares for the weakest, the most vulnerable. That’s God’s will. And it’s God’s will that an infrastructure be in place to allow us to grow old, very old, with quality of life, meaningful life, not just living longer, but many years of well-being. This, too, is God’s will. People will have places to live, shelter. It’s not God’s desire for the homeless poor to sleep outdoors, to “lie rough,” as they say in Britain. People will earn a living and provide for their family and put food on the table. People will not labor in vain; they will have meaningful work that feeds their souls. They will bear children and extend hope and move creation forward. Our needs will be anticipated. And God will bring peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation between the wolf and the lamb. That’s the plan.
Wishful thinking? Pollyanna? Sounds good, maybe, but it’s not reality, you might be thinking. It’s not possible in the real world. Maybe. Or maybe that’s why we’re here, why you were born, why you exist. Born for such a time as this, to be co-creators with God in the building, the forming of a new heaven and a new earth, that is might be “on earth as it is in heaven.” The beginning is near! It’s always near. Isn’t this what the church is for—a community that channels the ongoing creative work of God? Isn’t this what we’re really saying with our 2014 pledge commitments this morning? Isn’t this why we give generously and try to be more generous because more can be done when we are generous? And there’s more to be done. A new heaven and new earth is both here and on the way. As Isaiah loved to say, “Do you not perceive it?” God is doing a new thing! “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). Right now. Can you see it? Feel it?
For God is a God of new beginnings who loves to do new things, who wants us to live the dream forward. Jesus himself is rooted in this vision. He didn’t come to offer a new religion. He’s not a detour, but a continuation of what God started at the beginning. The prologue of John’s Gospel is explicitly clear about this; its opening words allude back to Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).
Baptism is the place of new beginnings. The font is the place of new beginnings, where we start again and again and again in the Christian life. Engrafted into the church, sure; but deeper still, engrafted into the ongoing creative work of God who has created us—created Shannon Paige Glaser and Ryan Joseph Long—and is still creating, forming, shaping us—shaping them—to be people of light shining in dark places; people of hope, of love, of compassion, people who know that we belong to God and that God is at work in us, for us, through us, for the world, for the nations, in our homes, in neighborhoods—in our own “Jerusalem,” wherever heaven and earth meet. Jerusalem was viewed as the place where heaven and earth meet. Wherever your “Jerusalem” is, wherever heaven and earth touch—as at the font of baptism—in such moments, God’s glory is revealed for all, all, to see. Amen.
Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns ofChild-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York: New American Library, 1977).
See PhilipGreven, Spare the Child: The ReligiousRoots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
 Katie Givens Kim in the Christian Century, November 5, 2013. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-10/sunday-november-17-2013.
 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 247.